San Jose to Revise Campaign Laws Ahead of 2016 Elections

San Jose is expected to nix a voluntary spending cap and change several other local election laws to match state requirements.

Election code revisions come up for review at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, well in advance of the Dec. 10 opening of the campaign contribution period for the June 2016 primary.

Earlier this month, the council voted 9-2—with Mayor Sam Liccardo and Councilman Don Rocha opposed—to eliminate the voluntary cap candidate spending. The limit was tied to the population of each council district and ranged from $130,000 for council hopefuls to $800,000 for mayoral candidates.

The council also voted to revise the rules for reporting late campaign donations. Unlike state law requiring candidates to report donations of $1,000 or more in the final three months before an election day, San Jose adopted a rule in 2011 to report donations of $250 or more in the final 16 days.

But the difference between state and local law confused candidates and City Clerk Toni Taber, who misdirected candidates in this latest council race. The result: about 40 candidates, including several currently serving on the council, broke the law.

Toni Taber sent this email to campaign accountant Alma Castillo, showing the clerk provided incorrect information.

Toni Taber sent this email in 2014 to campaign accountant Alma Castillo, showing the clerk provided incorrect information.

In the special election to fill the north San Jose District 4 seat this past summer, Councilman Manh Nguyen failed to correctly report about $200,000 in late contributions. While looking into a complaint against the newly elected councilman, the city’s Ethics Commission found a host of other violators. Some of them—namely Mayor Liccardo, Vice Mayor Rose Herrera and council members Rocha and Pierluigi Oliverio—voted for the laws in the first place.

Yet the city hit only Nguyen with a $10,000 penalty after a complaint was filed prior to his election.

The Ethics Commission then launched a sweeping probe into the 40 other violations. That investigation, led by law firm Hanson Bridgett, is expected to stretch into November. But it could take a while longer, depending on how quickly candidates respond to the investigators, according to Hanson Bridgett attorney Steve Miller.

Some other changes to the election code up for a final reading this week include having the city clerk send out a press release instead of a Mercury News ad to publish campaign statements.

The city will also change deadlines to retire campaign debt to 11:59pm instead of midnight, to avoid confusion about which day the deadline refers to. Candidates will only have to disclose who paid for mailings—not yard signs, fliers, and billboards—as per the state’s Fair Political Action Committee standards.

As for the voluntary spending cap, the council agreed that the purpose has been rendered moot since it does nothing to stop special interest groups from pouring unlimited cash to support or oppose a candidate—something protected as free speech after the Citizens United ruling.

More from the San Jose City Council agenda for October 20, 2015:

  • In 1999, San Jose voted against an application from Calpine to build a power plant in the Santa Teresa neighborhood. Two years later, that decision was overturned, and the company built the facility anyway. As a peace offering, the company agreed to build two air-monitoring stations to measure environmental impacts. All these years later, those have yet to be built. Now, Councilman Ash Kalra and Mayor Liccardo say it might be better to have Calpine pay the city in lieu of building those stations, since the company has yet to make good on the deal 15 years later.
  • The council will vote on whether to draft a “notice of support” letter for the Vietnam Human Rights Act of 2015, or H.R. 2140. The bill by Congressman Christopher Smith (R-New Jersey) seeks to withhold non-humanitarian aid from the government of Vietnam in protest of its civil rights violations against political and religious prisoners, journalists, labor unions and free speech advocates. The resolution, brought by Mayor Liccardo and council members Kalra, Tam Nguyen and Manh Nguyen would direct the city to send a statement in support of the legislation to President Obama, Rep. Smith and other leaders in the nation’s capitol. “As a beacon of civil liberties around the world, our country has never shied away from its commitment to basic human rights,” the memo reads. “We should not stand idly by while tyrants repress their people, least of all from our trade partners. Access to our economy and the opportunity for financial gain must be earned through compliance with the basic rules of human dignity and fairness. Unfortunately, Vietnam has continued to push the limits of our tolerance in this regard. Almost four decades after the Vietnam War, Vietnam has continued its use of force, intimidation and imprisonment to silence and oppress its people.”

WHAT: City Council meets
WHEN: 1:30pm Tuesday
WHERE: City Hall, 200 E. Santa Clara St., San Jose
INFO: City Clerk, 408.535.1260

Jennifer Wadsworth is the former news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.


  1. The Ethics Commission has become a quasi-Spanish Inquisition; drunk to extreme excess with power and what also appears as having unlimited funding along with a certified shorthand reporter to provide a transcript that is accepted into any court in our land.

    The current commission is a threat to our democracy. If a candidate who runs for office and does not have a very, very good attorney on the campaign payroll, who specializes in San Jose’s labyrinth of campaign regulations; this candidate may very well become a victim of the “Inquisitors” and face draconain fines and or sanctions for simple and honest mistakes. This fact will limit the pool of candidates from seeking office out of abject fear and loathing of being falsey accused of wrong-doing by making a simple mistake and then being “burned at the stake.”

    It is way past time to overhaul Title 12.

    It is also now timely to strip the Ethics Commission of their limitless power and finances. (Not to forget, stripping them of their lavish feasts provided by the taxpayers at each meeting. You should witness these commissioners stuffing their cavernous jowls while speaking- during the meeting on the taxpayers dime. The spectacle is even more disgusting when large bits of food tumbles down their double or triple chins and ends up on their clothes or documents during the feeding frenzy.)

    David S. Wall

  2. “Ethics Commissions” composed of politicians are a joke.

    Politicians are offended by other politicians sending anonymous mailers calling so and so a “poop head”, But they look the other way when tax dollars pay for harvesting and selling of body parts obtained from living babies.

    At the end of the day, the voters are the ultimate Ethics Commission.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *